Baptism in water and the Spirit - Lucy Reid | January 14, 2019 |
Today’s readings mention different kinds of baptism – baptism in water, and baptism in the Holy Spirit.
In the passage from Acts it says that the new Christians in Samaria were baptized (presumably with water) “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” but that they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit. So Peter and John lay hands on them (the traditional gesture of transmitting a blessing) and then they receive the Holy Spirit. It’s a two-stage process.
Similarly in the gospel reading John the Baptist is doing what his name suggests – baptizing people, in water, in the Jordan river. And he says to them, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
So what are these two baptisms, or are they two parts of one thing?
When I was in high school, I had a friend who went to a different church. She told me that although I’d been baptized as a baby, in water, I still needed to be baptized in the Holy Spirit to be a real Christian. She said infant baptism with water didn’t count – it wasn’t the real deal. And she told me if I was baptized in the Holy Spirit I’d know it because I’d receive certain gifts like speaking in tongues. She prayed over me, that I’d receive this baptism in the Holy Spirit, but nothing happened as far as I could tell.
It was a very confusing and upsetting experience. I felt like a failure, who should have experienced something special but didn’t. And I felt judged and found wanting, as if I was missing something really important which would make me a true and blessed Christian.
After a few miserable days fretting about this, I went and talked to my priest, and although I don’t remember exactly what he said I do remember coming away feeling relieved and reassured that I was indeed a Christian, my baptism as a baby was valid, and there are many ways God blesses and gifts people with the Holy Spirit.
As I reflect on that experience now, almost 50 years later, I would want to say three things:
Judging each other in terms of who is a better Christian, or who has received the Holy Spirit or certain spiritual gifts, is not helpful. It’s dangerous and presumptuous. St Paul in a letter to the Corinthian Christians warns them quite sternly about not comparing who has which spiritual gifts, and arguing about which are best. He says there can be all kinds of phenomena like speaking in tongues or prophesying, but having love matters more than all of them. Love and its fruits are far more important than dazzling spiritual powers.It’s true, though, that there is both an external dimension to our sacraments like baptism, and also an internal or spiritual dimension. A child might be baptized as a baby, but it doesn’t end there: there’s a lifetime of the Holy Spirit at work in her, shaping her with God’s love, enabling her to become more Christ-like, nudging her forward along the path of life. Baptism with water is a beginning – just as the sacrament of marriage is a beginning, or receiving the eucharist is a beginning. There’s a whole lot more that follows, with the Holy Spirit at work in us if we’re open.And in fact the internal, spiritual aspect of growing in our life of faith is often much more challenging, much harder than the external experience of, say, being held over a font with water poured gently over the head.
Going back to the gospel, John says that the baptism of Jesus is “with fire.” He says it’s like having the husks of the wheat burned up – the outer shell of ourselves, the protective layers, the dried up parts, the parts that are no longer serving us well. You know – negative habits like cynicism, being critical or judgmental, holding back when we should step up, acting out of self-interest instead of with love.
Being a follower of Jesus isn’t all sweetness and light, it’s hard work. It’s not that we’re being punished – that’s not what the fire imagery is about. And it certainly isn’t about pointing the finger and saying these people are saved and those are damned to the fires of hell. It’s about each of us and the aspects of our lives that need to be purified, stripped down, got rid of.
The hard experiences in life are often our biggest teachers. It’s often those who have gone through very tough personal times who emerge with the biggest hearts and the deepest wisdom. Our hearts sometimes have to break, to become open to the transforming power of God’s Spirit within us.
So, baptism with water, and baptism by fire. The external moments in our faith life, and the internal process. But it’s all founded on love: God’s unconditional love of us.
Back to the gospel: when Jesus is baptized by John, first it’s just water baptism. But then, as he’s come out of the water and he’s praying, he has a profound experience of being touched by the love of God: it’s as if heaven is opening and the Holy Spirit coming upon him; and he hears these words: “You are my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased/in whom I delight.” And that’s the turning point for Jesus. That’s when he goes away on a forty-day retreat, and then begins his years of ministry – teaching, healing, bringing good news, being good news.
You may not remember your own baptism. But I bet you can remember those times in your life when you’ve felt loved, or touched by God in your heart. And I bet you remember times of heartbreak and struggle, or times when you were changed. That is the work of the Holy Spirit in you – sometimes gentle, sometimes burning, often unnoticed or unnamed. But always a Spirit of love. You are God’s beloved child, in whom God delights.